On the Prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane

"Nowhere Else in Sacred Scripture Do We Gain So Deep an Insight Into the Inner Mystery of Jesus"

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 1, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Italian-language catechesis Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience held in Paul VI Hall. The Pope reflected today on the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

Today I would like to speak about the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane, in the Garden of Olives. The setting of the gospel account of this prayer is particularly significant. Jesus sets out for the Mount of Olives after the Last Supper, while he is praying together with his disciples. The Evangelist Mark relates: “When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (14:26). This likely alludes to the singing of some of the Hallel Psalms. These are hymns of thanksgiving to God for the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery, and a plea for help in the face of ever new and present tribulations and threats. The path to Gethsemane is strewn with expressions of Jesus, which make us feel the impending fate of his death and foretell the imminent scattering of the disciples.

Having reached the grove on the Mount of Olives, also on this night Jesus prepares himself for personal prayer. But this time something new occurs: He seems not to want to be alone. On many occasions, Jesus withdrew apart from the crowds and from his own disciples, remaining in “a lonely place” (cf. Mark 1:35) or going up into the hills, as St. Mark says (cf. Mark 6:46). At Gethsemane, however, he invites Peter, James and John to remain closer to him. They are the disciples whom he called to be with him on the Mount of the Transfiguration (cf. Mark 9:2-13).

This closeness of the three during the prayer in Gethsemane is significant. On that night also, Jesus will pray to the Father “alone,” since his relationship with Him is wholly unique and singular: it is the relationship of the Only Begotten Son. Indeed, it could be said that especially on that night no one can truly draw near to the Son, who presents himself to the Father in his absolutely unique, exclusive identity. 

Jesus, however, though arriving “alone” at the place where he will stop to pray, wills that at least three of his disciples remain nearby, in a closer relationship with him. It is a spatial closeness, a request for solidarity in the moment when he feels death approaching.   But above all, it is a closeness in prayer that in some way expresses their being with him at the time he is preparing to accomplish the Father’s will unto the end; and it is an invitation to every disciple to follow him on the way of the Cross. The Evangelist Mark relates: “And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch’” (14:33-34).

In the word he addresses to the three, Jesus once again expresses himself in the language of the Psalms: “My soul is very sorrowful” is an expression from Psalm 43 (cf. Psalm 43:5). Steadfast determination “unto death” further recalls a situation that many of those who were sent by God in the Old Testament experienced and expressed in their prayer.  Not infrequently, in fact, following the mission God entrusted to them meant encountering hostility, rejection and persecution. Moses feels in a dramatic way the trial he undergoes as he guides the people of Israel in the desert, and he says to God: “I am not able to carry the weight of this people alone, the burden is too heavy for me; If you deal with me thus, kill me at once if I find favor in your sight” (Numbers 11:14-15). Nor is it easy for the Prophet Elijah to carry out his service to God and to His people.  The First Book of Kings relates: “He himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree; and he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers’”(19:4).

Jesus’ words to the three disciples he wills to remain close by during the prayer in Gethsemane reveal the fear and anguish he feels in that “Hour”; they reveal his experience of an ultimate, profound solitude precisely at the time God’s plan is being realized. And in Jesus’ fear and anguish, all of man’s horror in the face of his own death, the certainty of its relentlessness and the perception of the weight of evil that laps against our lives are recapitulated.

After the invitation addressed to the three to remain and watch in prayer, Jesus “alone” turns to the Father. The Evangelist Mark tells us that, “going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him” (14:35). Jesus falls face to the ground: It is the prayer posture that expresses obedience to the Father’s will -- a total, trusting abandonment to Him. It is a gesture that is repeated at the beginning of the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday, as well as at monastic professions and diaconal, priestly and episcopal ordinations in order to express in prayer, and also in a bodily way, the complete entrustment of oneself to God, and reliance on Him. Jesus continues by asking the Father that, if it were possible, this hour might pass from him. This is not only the fear and anguish of a man faced with death; it is the inner turmoil of the Son of God, who sees the terrible flood of evil that he must take upon himself in order to overcome it, to deprive it of its power.

Dear friends, in prayer we too must be capable of bringing before God our struggles, the suffering of certain situations, of certain days, the daily undertaking of following him, of being Christians, and also the weight of evil that we see within ourselves and around us, so that he may give us hope, that he may make us feel his closeness and give us a little light on the path of life.

Jesus continues his prayer: “Abba! Father! All things are possible to thee; remove this chalice from me; yet not what I will, but what you will” (14:36). In this appeal, there are three revealing passages. At the beginning, we have the double use of the word that Jesus uses to address himself to God: “Abba! Father!” (Mark 14:36a). We are well aware that the Aramaic word Abba was used by a child to address his father, and that it therefore expresses Jesus’ relationship with God the Father, a relationship of tenderness, affection, trust and abandonment. In the central part of the appeal there is a second element: the awareness of the Father’s omnipotence -- “All things are possible to thee” -- that introduces a request in which the drama of Jesus’ human will in the face of death and evil again appears: “Remove this chalice from me.” But there is a third expression in Jesus’ prayer, and it is the decisive one in which his human will adheres fully to the divine will. Jesus, in fact, concludes by saying forcefully: “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36c). 

In the unity of the divine Person of the Son, the human will attains fulfillment in the total abandonment of the “I” to the “You” of the Father, who is called Abba. St. Maximus the Confessor affirms that, from the moment of the creation of man and woman, the human will was ordered to the divine will, and that it is precisely in its “yes” to God that the human will is made fully free and attains fulfillment.

Unfortunately, due to sin, this “yes” to God was transformed into opposition: Adam and Eve thought that “no” to God was the pinnacle of freedom, their being fully themselves. On the Mount of Olives, Jesus draws the human will back to its full “yes” to God; in Him the natural will is fully integrated in the orientation the Divine Person gives to it. Jesus lives his life in accordance with the center of his Person: his being the Son of God. His human will is drawn into the “I” of the Son, who abandons Himself totally to the Father.

Thus, Jesus tells us that it is only in conforming one’s own will to the divine will that the human being attains his true greatness, that he becomes “divine”; it is only by going out of himself -- only in his “yes” to God -- that the desire of Adam and of us all is fulfilled -- that of being completely free. This is what Jesus accomplishes in Gethsemane: by placing the human will within the divine will the true man is born, and we are redeemed.

The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church concisely teaches: “The prayer of Jesus during his agony in the garden of Gethsemane and his last words on the Cross reveal the depth of his filial prayer. Jesus brings to completion the loving plan of the Father and takes upon himself all the anguish of humanity and all the petitions and intercessions of the history of salvation. He presents them to the Father who accepts them and answers them beyond all hope by raising his Son from the dead” (n. 543). Truly, “nowhere else in sacred Scripture do we gain so deep an insight into the inner mystery of Jesus as in the prayer on the Mount of Olives” (Jesus of Nazareth II, 157).

Dear brothers and sisters, every day in the prayer of the Our Father we ask the Lord: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). We recognize, that is, that there is a will of God with us and for us, a will of God for our lives, which more and more each day must become the reference point for our will and for our being. Furthermore, we recognize that “heaven” is where the will of God is done, and that “earth” becomes “heaven” -- i.e., the place of the presence of love, of goodness, of truth and of divine beauty -- only if on earth the will of God is done.

In Jesus’ prayer to the Father on that terrible and wondrous night of Gethsemane, “earth” became “heaven”; the “earth” of his human will, shaken by fear and anguish, was assumed by the divine will, so that the will of God might be accomplished on earth. And this is important for our prayer as well: We must learn to entrust ourselves more and more to divine Providence, to ask God to conform our wills to His. It is a prayer that we must make daily, because it is not always easy to entrust ourselves to God’s will, to repeat the “yes” of Jesus, the “yes” of Mary.

The Gospel accounts of Gethsemane painfully reveal that the three disciples chosen by Jesus to remain close to him were unable to keep watch with Him, to share in His prayer, in His adherence to the Father, and that they were overcome by sleep. Dear friends, let us ask the Lord to grant us the ability to keep watch with Him in prayer; to follow the will of God each day, even if it speaks of the Cross; and to experience an ever greater intimacy with the Lord -- in order that a little of God's "heaven" might be brought to this "earth.” Thank you.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]

[In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In our continuing catechesis on Christian prayer, we now turn to the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane, the Garden of Olives, following the Last Supper. As the Lord prepares to face his death, he prays alone, as the eternal Son in communion with the Father. Yet he also desires the company of Peter, James and John; their presence is an invitation to every disciple to draw near to Jesus along the way of the Cross. Christ’s prayer reveals his human fear and anguish in the face of death, and at the same time shows his complete obedience to the will of the Father. His words, “not what I want, but what you want” (Mk 14:36), teach us that only in complete abandonment to God’s will do we attain the full measure of our humanity. In Christ’s “yes” to the Father, Adam’s sin is redeemed and humanity attains true freedom, the freedom of the children of God. May our contemplation of the Lord’s prayer in Gethsemane help us better to discern God’s will for us and for our lives, and sustain our daily petition that his will be done, “on earth as it is in heaven”.

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I offer a warm welcome to the group of British Army Chaplains taking part in today’s Audience. My greeting also goes to the many student and parish groups present. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors, including those from Hong Kong and the United States of America, I cordially invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace!

© Copyright 2012 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[In Italian, he said:]

Lastly, I wish to extend my greetings to the young, to the sick and to newlyweds. The figure of St. John Bosco, whom we remembered yesterday, leads us to consider how important it is to educate the new generations in the authentic human and spiritual values of life. Dear young people, I invoke upon you the special protection of the saint of youth, and I hope that you will always find wise teachers and sure guides. Dear sick, may your suffering, generously offered to the Lord, render the Church’s commitment to the world of youth fruitful. And may you, dear newlyweds, prepare yourselves to be the first and irreplaceable educators of the children the Lord gives to you.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]