Here, on this rock, the Lord fought the decisive battle. Here He pronounced his extreme yes to the Father, the yes that liberates us, the yes that breaks the chains of disobedience and autonomy, the yes that draws us into the freedom of Christ, which is the freedom of being a Son, the “Only begotten Son of the Father”: “My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39).
All of Jesus’s existence tended towards, pursued, this decisive hour: from the very beginning of His ministry, from Cana of Galilee, Jesus was secretly waiting. Few hours before, during the last supper, He said that he had even longed for this moment (Lk 22:15) as a warrior waits anxiously for the duel with his Enemy, who has taken what was not rightfully his.
And yet, when the hour of the final battle had arrived, something unexpected happened, something that seems to exceed every “prediction”. Jesus is overtaken by a strange terror, that plunges suddenly within him: he “began to be greatly troubled (in Greek herxato ekthambesthai), writes Mark (Mk 14: 33).
Something happens within Him, which seems to take him by surprise: he is overtaken with terror.
The verb used by Mark is very strong. It indicates a violent emotion that arises from unexpectedly seeing something extraordinary, unusual, never seen before.
What a mystery! We know that Jesus knew, down to the smallest detail—we are told by the evangelists—that which awaited him. And yet, there is something in that hour that seems to exceed, with its weight, every prevision, all of the foreknowledge given by the Spirit. What is it then, this mysterious dismay, this mortal sadness that strikes the heart of the Lord, in this supreme hour?
Sorrowful, sorrowful even to death…sorrowful to the point of death, sorrowful of a mortal sorrow (Mk 14:34).
What is this mortal sorrow? Does it have to do with the human terror in front of suffering, from the rebellion of Your flesh in front of the chalice of the passion, that now is seen with the naked eye in front of You?
You, indeed, knew. Also as a man, you knew what awaited You. How clearly you knew is beyond our comprehension. But you knew. Three times you foretold to the disciples your imminent destiny. You knew and freely ran to meet this destiny, according to your hour—as you often called it — almost in veneration.
You were ready, you were prepared. No, it was not the fear of suffering your passion and death that hurled you to the earth: “And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed” (Mt 26:39).
You did not kneel: you laid prostrate on that rock. You fell, with your face to the ground, as if cut down by a weight, within you from the outside.
What then happened?
We are not able to grasp the mystery of this sorrow of Christ, of this hour of his darkness. It is a mystery that surpasses us.
That being said, the evangelists allow us to stammer some sort of response. Mark, like Mathew, also uses a particular verb to describe the interior anguish of Jesus: “he began to be sorrowful and troubled (in Greek ek-demonein)” (Mk 14:33; Mt 26:37).
The Greek verb is more expressive than its translation. It indicates a particular type of anguish: that of solitude, of isolation, of alienation from the communion of others, from the members of one’s own demos, of one’s own house.
We can intuit the meaning of this word in this way: He, the beloved Son of the Father, the “only-begotten Son from the Father” (Jn 1:14), begins for the first time to taste the bitterness of the most horrendous chalice: the chalice of the absence of the Father, of the anguish of “being an orphan”, that anguish that the first Adam already knew, that caused him to suddenly hide his face from his father and Creator.
That being said, the anguish of Jesus is infinitely more profound, precisely because He is the Son, precisely because He alone is able to call God Abbà. Precisely for these reasons He is much more nauseated by this bitter taste, which is the antithesis of his very existence.
Yes, there is something infinitely more terrible than any physical torture, any death, even the most atrocious: The icy solitude of being alienated from God, which is, in reality, the root of death and of every suffering. This is the bitter chalice that Jesus begs to pass from Him, if possible: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you, remove this chalice from me; yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mk 14:36).
It is not therefore the immanence of death nor of the physical suffering that nauseates Jesus, but the bitterness of the vertiginous chalice – as it is called by the prophets – the chalice of the anger of God. It is a mysterious bitterness that we are able to penetrate only analogically, a bitterness that is truly infinite: not temporally, but in its intensity, because infinite is the privation that He freely, from the beginning, accepted to undergo in that hour. A bitterness that is not softened by the memory of the “before” nor by the (certain!) hope of the “after”. A bitterness, a suffering so great, that now He—for the first and only time of his human existence—seeks the comfort of his disciples, begging for their company, for their closeness, as if he needed it. It is really the overturning, the inversion of everything.
He, who had come to reveal to them the face of the Father, now feels so alone as to have a thirst for their comfort. But he finds them asleep, for their eyes were very heavy (…) “Peter, you could not watch one hour with me?” (Mk 14:37-40).
Much more than a reprimand, in this question sounds the echo of the great mystery of the human solitude of the Lord. He searches their participation, their sharing in His passion, and does not find it. Their eyes were “heavy”, writes Matthew. It is the identical verb used by Luke to describe the strange sleepiness that undertook the same three disciples, Peter, John and James, on the mountain called Tabor in front of the splendor of the Transfiguration: on Mount Tabor, there was the dazzling light from the glorious Jesus that covered them. Now, however, they were dazed by the thick darkness that surrounded them.
Likeness and opposition. But the opposition is only apparent, since, in reality, the light on Mount Tabor and the darkness in Gethsemane are nothing other than two sides of the same mystery of glory: his glory, which is glory “as the only-begotten Son from the Father” (Jn 1:14), the glory of the Son, who is loved without limits, as well as ready to love; the glory of the Sons love to the last.
What is this glory?
The glory, in Herbrew, Kabod, is, in the language of Israel, the radiation, the exterior manifestation of dignity of a person of significance (Kabod literally means “weight”). Yahweh, the King of kings, manifests his Kabod when he creates from nothing, when he saves the helpless from the hands of the strong, when he demolishes entire armies as if there were reeds in the wind… In short, when he completes actions that reveal how incomparable to any other is his strength and power.
Jesus does not manifest less of his glory in Gethsemane than on Mount Tabor. In reality, precisely in pronouncing his most extreme “yes,” Jesus demonstrates who he is. And it is here, on this rock, that his filial obedience to the father shines in all of its crushing power.
Here, then, is the connection between the light of Tabor and the darkness of Gethsemane: precisely because Jesus is the beloved Son of the Father, the Son who, alone, has seen the face of the Father, He is able to push in faithful obedience all the way into the heart of the most impenetrable darkness; precisely because He alone knows the heart of the Father, He alone also has the strength to support the weight of his total absence, without losing faith in the Father.
In the moment in which the most atrociously solitude surrounds him, Jesus does not lose his faith in the Father or his will to abbey him. The luminous flame of his filial piety is not smothered. On the contrary, in this act consists the victory of the Lord: accepting to leave himself enclosed in the frozen prison in which the sin of Adam is enclosed, Jesus introduces the flame that melts the bars from within, the inextinguishable flame of his “yes”: nevertheless not my will, but yours, be done (Lk 22:42).
We are always ready for great sacrifices. Like Peter, how often we have proclaimed, in a burst of gratitude, to be ready to “give our life for the Lord”. We are ready to sacrifice, provided that we are the ones to determine, to fix, the “when”, the “how” and the “what” of the sacrifice. But this mode of giving one’s life is not a true sacrifice. The heart of sacrifice is in letting Another determine the “how”, the “what” and the “when” of our offering. The heart of sacrifice is in obedience: as Von Speyr writes, “Holiness does not consist in giving everything, but in allowing God to take everything.”
There arrives the moment, sooner or later, for every person, in which what is asked by the Father must take on the same excessive and incomprehensible countenance that makes Jesus stagger in Gethsemane. But it is precisely in these moments, these hours, that true fruitfulness matures. It is precisely in these moments that our life becomes true sacrifice: in the “yes” said through gritted teeth, to something asked which seems to be greater than capacity: it is exactly here that all our fruitfulness is decided.
This is the sacrifice that truly brings fruit: Not my, but Your will be done.
In the cover image, Paola Marzoli, “Getsemani”, 2004, opera 598, oil on canvas.