April / May - 2020 Vol. 109

.Jesus - agony inthe garden
The Agony of the Savior Who Bore the Sins of the World
by Fulton J. Sheen


There is only one recorded time in the history of Our Blessed Lord when He sang, and that was after the Last Supper when He went out to His death in the Garden of Gethsemane. 
And so they sang a hymn And went out to Mount Olivet.
Mark 14:26
The captives in Babylon hung their harps upon the willows, for they could not bring a song from their hearts in a strange land. The gentle lamb opens not its mouth when led to the slaughter, but the true Lamb of God sang with joy at the prospect of the Redemption of the world. Then came the great warning that they would all be shaken in their confidence in Him. “The Hour” was rapidly approaching about which He had often spoken; when it would strike Him, they would be scandalized: if He was God, why should He suffer?
Tonight you will all lose courage over Me.
Matthew 26:31
He Who would be the cornerstone of their faith in days to come, now warned that He would also be the stone of their stumbling. He had called Himself their “Good Shepherd,” and now it was the hour of laying down His life for His sheep. Reaching back centuries into their prophecies, He now quoted to them what Zacharias had foretold: 

Smite the shepherd, and his flock shall scatter.

Zacharias 13:7
For Christ to be a Savior, He must be a sacrifice. This is what would scandalize them. Actually, an hour later, the Apostles all forsook Him and fled. But since He never spoke of His Passion without foretelling His Resurrection, He immediately added words which they did not understand:
But I will go before you into Galilee,
When I have risen from the dead.
Matthew 26:32
Such a promise was never made before; that a dead man would keep an appointment with His friends after three days in a tomb. Though the sheep would forsake the Shepherd, the Shepherd would find His sheep. As Adam lost the heritage of union with God in a garden, so now Our Blessed Lord ushered in its restoration in a garden. Eden and Gethsemane were the two gardens around which revolved the fate of humanity. In Eden, Adam sinned; in Gethsemane, Christ took humanity’s sin upon Himself. In Eden, Adam hid himself from God; in Gethsemane, Christ interceded with His Father; in Eden, God sought out Adam in his sin of rebellion; in Gethsemane, the New Adam sought out the Father and His submission and resignation. In Eden, a sword was drawn to prevent entrance into the garden and thus immortalizing of evil; in Gethsemane, the sword would be sheathed. The garden was called Gethsemane because of the presence of a press which crushed olives. It was not the first time Our Lord had been in that garden. 
Jesus and His disciples had often gathered in it.
John 18:2
Furthermore, He had often spent the night there: 
Each day He went on teaching in the temple;
And at night He lodged on the mountain
Which is called Olivet.
Luke 21:37
Judas had already gone forth on his dirty business of betrayal. Eight of the Apostles were left near the entrance to Gethsemane; the other three, Peter, James, and John, who had been His companions when He raised the daughter of Jairus, and when His face shone as the sun on the Mount of Transfiguration, He
took with Him into the garden. It is as if, in that last contest in the valley of the shadow, His human soul craved for the presence of those who loved Him best. For their part, they were strengthened for the scandal of His death, since they had seen the prefigurement of His glory in the Transfiguration. On entering the garden He said to them: 
Sit down here, while I go in there and pray.
Matthew 26:36
Beginning to grow “dismayed and distressed,” He said to the three Apostles: 
My soul is ready to die with sorrow;
Do you abide here and watch with Me.
Matthew 26:38
Isaiah had foretold that there would be laid upon Him the iniquity of us all. In fulfillment of that prophecy. He tasted death for every man, bearing guilt as if it were His own. Two elements were inseparably bound together—sin-bearing, and sinless obedience. Falling on His face, He now prayed to His Heavenly Father: 
My Father, if it is possible,
Let this chalice pass Me by;
Only as Thy Will is, not as Mine is.
Matthew 26:39
His two natures, the Divine and the human, were both involved in this prayer. He and the Father were One; it was not “Our Father,” but “My Father.” Unbroken was the consciousness of His Father’s love. But on the other hand, His human nature recoiled from death as a penalty for sin. The natural shrinking of the human soul from the punishment which sin deserves was overborne by Divine submission to the Father’s will. The “No” to the cup of the Passion was human; the “Yes” to the Divine will was the overcoming of human reluctance to suffering for the sake of Redemption. To take the bitter cup of human suffering which atones for sin and to sweeten it with little drops of “God wills it” is the sign of One Who suffered in man’s name, and yet One Whose suffering had infinite value because He was God as well as Man.

This scene is shrouded with the halo of a mystery which no human mind can adequately penetrate. One can dimly guess the psychological horror of the progressive stages of fear, anxiety, and sorrow which prostrated Him before even a single blow had been struck. It has been said that soldiers fear death much more before the zero hour of attack than in the heat of battle. The active struggle takes away the fear of death which is present when one contemplates it without action. But there was something else besides the quiet anticipation of the coming struggle which added to the mental sufferings of Our Blessed Lord. It is very likely that the Agony in the Garden cost Him far more suffering than even the physical pain of Crucifixion, and perhaps brought His soul into greater regions of darkness than any other moment of the Passion, with the possible exception of the one on the Cross when He cried: 
My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken Me?
Matthew 27:46
His mental sufferings were quite different from the sufferings of a mere man, because in addition to having human intelligence, He also had a Divine intelligence. Furthermore, He had a physical organism which was as perfect as any human organism could be; therefore it was much more sensitive to pain than our human nature, which has been calloused by crude emotions and evil experiences.

This agony can be faintly portrayed by realizing that there are different degrees of pain felt at the various levels of creations. Humans very often exaggerate the pain of animals, thinking that they suffer as do humans. The reason that they do not suffer as keenly as man is because they do not have an intellect. Each pulsation of animal pain is separate and distinct, and unrelated to every other pulsation. But when a man suffers pain, he can go back into the past with his intellectual memory, add up all his previous aches, and pull them down on himself, saying: “This is the third week of this agony” or “This is the seventh year that I have suffered.” By summarizing all the previous blows of the hammer of pain, he makes the one-hundredth stroke almost combine within itself the multiplied intensity of the previous ninety-nine. This an animal cannot do. Hence a man suffers more than a beast.

In addition to that, the human mind not only can bring the past to bear upon the present, it can even look forward and bring the future to bear upon the present. Not only can a man say: “I have suffered this agony for seven years,” but also “The prospects are that I will suffer with it for seven more years.” The human mind reaches out to the indefinite future, and pulls back upon itself all of this imagined agony that yet lies in store for it, and heaps it upon the present moment of pain. Because of this ability of the mind, not only to throw itself under the heap of the continued sufferings from the past but also under the pile of the imagined tortures of the future, man can suffer far more than any animal. Man loads himself with what has happened and what will happen. That is why, when we bring relief to the sick, we generally try to distract them; by interrupting the continuity of their pain and by relaxing their mind, they are less likely to add up their agony.

But with Our Blessed Lord, two differences from ourselves may be mentioned. First, what was predominant in His mind was not physical pain, but moral evil or sin. There was indeed that natural fear of death which He would have had because of His human nature; but it was no such vulgar fear which dominated His agony. It was something far more deadly than death. It was the burden of the mystery of the world’s sin which lay on His heart. Second, in addition to His human intellect, which had grown by experience, He had the infinite intellect of God which knows all things and sees the past and the future as present.

Poor humans become so used to sin that they do not realize its horror. The innocent understand the horror of sin much better than the sinful. The one thing from which man never learns anything by experience is sinning. A sinner becomes infected with sin. It becomes so much a part of him, that he may even think himself virtuous, as the feverish think themselves well. It is only the virtuous, who stand outside the current of sin, who can look upon evil as a doctor looks upon disease, who understand the full horror of evil.

What Our Blessed Lord contemplated in this agony was not just the buffeting of soldiers, and the pinioning of His hands and feet to a bar of contradiction, but rather the awful burden of the world’s sin, and the fact that the world was about to spurn His Father by rejecting Him, His Divine Son. What is evil but the exaltation of self-will against the loving will of God, the desire to be a god unto oneself, to accuse His wisdom as foolishness and His love as want of tenderness? He shrank not from the hard bed of the Cross, but from the world’s share in making it. He wanted the world to be saved from committing the blackest deed of sin ever perpetrated by the sons of men—the killing of Supreme Goodness, Truth, and Love.

Great characters and great souls are like mountains—they attract the storms. Upon their heads break the thunders; around their bare tops flash the lightning’s and the seeming wrath of God. Here for the moment was the loneliest, saddest soul the world has ever had living in it, the Lord Himself. Higher than all men, around His head seemed to beat the very storms of iniquity. Here was the whole history of the world summed up in one cameo, the conflict of God’s will and man’s will.

It is beyond human power to realize how God felt the opposition of human wills. Perhaps the closest that one can ever come to it is when a parent feels the strangeness of the power of the obstinate will of his children to resist and spurn persuasion, love, hope, or fear of punishment. A power so strong resides in a
body so slight and a mind so childish; yet it is the faint picture of men when they have sinned willfully. What is sin for the soul but a separate principle of wisdom and source of happiness working out its own ends, as if there were no God? Anti-Christ is nothing else but the full unhindered growth of self-will.

This was the moment when Our Blessed Lord, in obedience to His Father’s will, took upon Himself the iniquities of all the world and became the sin-bearer. He felt all the agony and torture of those who deny guilt, or sin with impunity and do no penance. It was the prelude of the dreadful desertion which He had to endure and would pay to His Father’s justice, the debt which was due from us: to be treated as a sinner. He was smitten as a sinner while there was no sin in Him—it was this which caused the agony, the greatest the world has ever known.

As sufferers look to the past and to the future, so the Redeemer looked to the past and to all the sins that had ever been committed; He looked also to the future, to every sin that would be committed until the crack of doom. It was not the past beatings of pain that He drew up to the present, but rather every open act of evil and every hidden thought of shame. The sin of Adam was there, when as the head of humanity he lost for all
men the heritage of God’s grace; Cain was there, purple in the sheet of his brother’s blood; the abominations of Sodom and Gomorrah were there; the forgetfulness of His own people who fell down before false gods was there; the coarseness of the pagans who had rebelled even against the natural law was there; all sins were there: sins committed in the country that made all nature blush; sins committed in the city, in the city’s fetid atmosphere of sin; sins of the young for whom the tender heart of Christ was pierced; sins of the old who should have passed the age of sinning; sins committed in the darkness, where it was
thought the eyes of God could not pierce; sins committed in the light that made even the wicked shudder; sins too awful to be mentioned, sins too terrible to name: Sin! Sin! Sin!

Once this pure, sinless mind of Our Savior had brought all of this iniquity of the past upon His soul as if it were His own, He now reached into the future. He saw that His coming into the world with the intent to save men would intensify the hatred of some against God; He saw the betrayals of future Judases, the sins of heresy that would rend Christ’s Mystical Body; the sins of the Communists who could not drive God from the heavens but would drive His ambassadors from the earth; He saw the broken marriage vows, lies, slanders, adulteries, murders, apostasies—all these crimes were thrust into His own hands, as if He had committed them. Evil desires lay upon His heart, as if He Himself had given them birth. Lies and schisms rested on His mind, as if He Himself had conceived them. Blasphemies seemed to be on His lips, as if He had spoken them. From the North, South, East, and West, the foul miasma of the world’s sins rushed upon Him like a flood; Samson-like, He reached up and pulled the whole guilt of the world upon Himself as if He
were guilty, paying for the debt in our name, so that we might once more have access to the Father. He was, so to speak, mentally preparing Himself for the great sacrifice, laying upon His sinless soul the sins of a guilty world. To most men, the burden of sin is as natural as the clothes they wear, but to Him the touch of that which men take so easily was the veriest agony.

In between the sins of the past which He pulled upon His soul as if they were His own, and the sins of the future which made Him wonder about the usefulness of His death—Quae utilitas in sanguine meo—was the horror of the present.

He found the Apostles asleep three times. Men who were worried about the struggle against the powers of darkness could not sleep—but these men slept. No wonder, then, with the accumulated guilt of all the ages clinging to Him as a pestilence, His bodily nature gave way. As a father in agony will pay the debt of a wayward son, He now sensed guilt to such an extent that it forced Blood from His Body, Blood which fell like crimson beads upon the olive roots of Gethsemane, making the first Rosary of Redemption. It was not bodily pain that was causing a soul’s agony; but full sorrow for rebellion against God that was creating bodily pain. It has been observed of old that the gum which exudes from the tree without cutting is always the best. Here the best spices flowed when there was no whip, no nail, and no wound. Without a lance, but through the sheer voluntariness of Christ’s suffering, the Blood flowed freely.

Sin is in the blood. Every doctor knows this; even passers-by can see it. Drunkenness is in the eyes, the bloated cheek. Avarice is written in the hands and on the mouth. Lust is written in the eyes. There is not a libertine, a criminal, a bigot, a pervert who does not have his hate or his envy written in every inch of his
body, every hidden gateway and alley of his blood, and every cell of his brain.

Since sin is in the blood, it must be poured out. As Our Lord willed that the shedding of the blood of goats and animals should prefigure His own atonement, so He willed further that sinful men should never again shed any blood in war or hate, but would invoke only His Precious Blood now poured out in Redemption. Since all sin needs expiation, modern man, instead of calling on the Blood of Christ in pardon, sheds his own brother’s blood in the dirty business of war. All this crimsoning of the earth will not be stopped until man in the full consciousness of sin begins to invoke upon himself in peace and pardon the Redemptive Blood of Christ, the Son of the Living God.

Every soul can at least dimly understand the nature of the struggle that took place on the moonlit night in the Garden of Gethsemane. Every heart knows something about it. No one has ever come to the twenties—let alone to the forties, or the fifties, or the sixties, or the seventies of life—without reflecting with some degree of seriousness on himself and the world round about him, and without knowing the terrible tension that has been caused in his soul by sin. Faults and follies do not efface themselves from the record of memory; sleeping tablets do not silence them; psychoanalysts cannot explain them away. The brightness of youth may make them fade into some dim outline, but there are times of silence—on a sick bed, sleepless nights, the open seas, a moment of quiet, the innocence in the face of a child—when these sins, like spectres or phantoms, blaze their unrelenting characters of fire upon our consciences. Their force might not have been realized in a moment of passion, but conscience is biding its time and will bear its stern uncompromising witness sometime, somewhere, and force a dread upon the soul that ought to make it cast itself back again to God. Terrible though the agonies and tortures of a single soul be, they were only a drop in the ocean of humanity’s guilt which the Savior felt as His own in the Garden.

Finding the Apostles asleep the third time, the Savior did not ask again if they could watch one hour with Him; more awful than any reprimand was the significant permission to sleep: 
Sleep and take your rest hereafter;
As I speak, the time draws near
When the Son of Man is to be betrayed into the hands of sinners.
Matthew 26:45
 The fatigued followers were allowed to sleep on until the last moment. Their sympathy was needed no longer; while His friends slept, His enemies plotted. It is conceivable that there may have been an interval of time between His finding them asleep and the approach of Judas and the soldiers. That time they could continue to pass in sleep. The Hour which He had ardently yearned for was now at hand. In the distance was the regular tramp of Roman soldiers, the uneven and hurried treading of the mob and the temple authorities with a traitor in the front. 
Rise up, let us go on our way;
Already, he that is to betray me is close at hand.
Matthew 26:46

[This article is excerpted from Life in Christ, chapter 41, Copyright 1958 by Fulton Sheen, and first published in Great Britain 1959 for Peter Davies Ltd by The Windmill Press Ltd, Kingswood, Surrey.]

top image: Waiting for the Word - Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, (c) creative commons licenses 2.0

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) was an American theologian and bishop, first in New York City and then in Rochester, New York. He became well-known for his preaching, especially on television and radio. He hosted the night-time radio program The Catholic Hour for twenty years (1930–1950) before moving to television and presenting a weekly program called, Life Is Worth Living. The show ran from 1951 until 1957, drawing as many as 30 million people on a weekly basis. He wrote 73 books and numerous articles and columns. Mother Theresa of Calcutta always kept a copy of Sheen’s book, Life of Christ, with her wherever she traveled for daily reflection and meditation.

Return to Table of Contents or Archives  • (c) copyright 2020 The Sword of the Spirit