Luke’s account of Gethsemane says this of Jesus:”And being in a certain agony (AGONIA), he prayed more earnestly.” This word, AGONIA, doesn’t just describe the intensity of Jesus’ suffering, but also his readying of himself for the painful task that awaits. How?
An athlete doesn’t enter the arena of competition without first properly warming up and, at the time this text was written, a serious athlete would warm up for a competition by first working himself or herself into a certain intense sweat, a lather, an AGONIA, so that he or she wouldn’t enter the competition with cold muscles.
Gethsemane teaches that to enter the spiritual arena, one too must first be properly warmed up. Cold muscles are a hazard here as well: We cannot walk from self-pampering to self-sacrifice, from living in fear to acting in courage, and from cringing before the unknown to taking the leap of faith, without first, like Jesus in Gethsemane, readying ourselves through a certain AGONIA, that is, without undergoing a painful sweat that comes from facing what will be asked of us if we continue to live the truth.
Mary Jo Leddy once commented that in order to live in real courage we must die before we die. In any situation that is dominated by fear, she asserts, we need to be living the resurrection already before we die. This means that choosing not to die is not always the same thing as choosing to live. Rather we need to choose truth, integrity, and duty even if it means pain and death, otherwise the deep instinct for self-preservation will forever cause us to be more concerned about our own safety and comfort than about anything else and fear will always dominate our lives.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus dies before he dies and in that way readies himself for what awaits him. The next day, when Pilate threatens him with death, Jesus stands in a freedom and courage that can only be understood if we understand what happened to him in the Garden. When Pilate says to him: “Don’t you know that I have power over you, power to take your life or to save it.” Jesus answers: “You have no power over me whatsoever. Nobody takes my life, I give it over freely.” In essence, Pilate is threatening a man already dead. No big threat. Jesus had already undergone the AGONIA. In great anguish he had given his life over freely the night before and so he is ready for whatever awaits him.
We see something similar in Oscar Romero, martyred in 1980. When Romero was first named an Archbishop, he was a good, sincere man, but also someone who lived in timidity and fear. However as he met with the poor and let them baptize him with the truth he began to experience a certain AGONIA, namely, it became clearer and clearer to him that he was on a collision-course which would eventually force him to choose between backing away from the truth so as to save his own life or speaking the truth and being killed for it. Understandably, he began to sweat a certain blood, a certain spiritual and emotional lather began to warm his spiritual muscles. At a point, he had to speak the truth and, in doing so, assured his own death. But he had readied himself. He had already suffered his AGONIA in Gethsemane and could now act with courage because he had already given his life away and thus no longer lived in the paralysing fear that someone might take it from him.
Martin Luther King, in his memorable speech, I HAVE A DREAM, says the same thing: Choosing self-preservation is not necessarily choosing life. Sometimes we need to accept opposition to choose community; sometimes we need to accept bitter pain to choose health; sometimes we need to accept a fearful free-fall to choose safety; and sometimes we need to accept death in order to choose life. If we let fear stop us from doing that, our lives will never be whole again.
We have nothing to fear but fear itself; easily said, but mostly our lives are dominated by it. We may be sincere and good, but we’re also fearful. Fearful of pain, of losing loved ones, of misunderstanding, of opposition, of sickness, of shame, of discomfort of all kinds, and ultimately of death. Deep inside us is a powerful pressure to do whatever it takes to ensure our own lives, safety, and security.
And so it’s not on the basis of nature that we give our lives away or move towards real courage. Like an athlete preparing for a tough contest, we must train for this. Like Jesus in the Gethsemane, we must die before we die, we must experience a courage-inducing AGONIA, so that, already having given it all away, we no longer live in the paralysing fear that someone might take it from us.