We tend to misunderstand “the passion of Jesus”. Spontaneously we think of it as the pain of the physical sufferings he endured on the road to his death. Partly that misses the point. Jesus’ passion should be understood precisely as “passio”, passivity, a certain submissive helplessness he had to undergo in counter-distinction to his power and activity. The passion of Jesus refers to the helplessness he had to endure during the last hours of his life, a helplessness extremely fruitful for him and for us.
And the first component in that helplessness begins in the Garden of Gethsemane, immediately after he has celebrated the last supper. The scriptures tell us that he went out into the Garden with his disciples to pray for the strength he needed to face the ordeal that was now imminent.
It’s significant that this agony should take place in a Garden. In archetypal literature (and scripture, among other things, is this kind of literature), a garden is not a place to pick cucumbers and onions. Archetypally, a garden is the place of delight, the place of love, the place to drink wine, the place where lovers meet in the moonlight, the place of intimacy. The garden is paradise. That’s why Adam and Eve in their paradisiacal state are described as being in a garden.
So it’s no accident that Jesus ends up having to sweat blood in a garden. And it’s precisely as a lover that he’s in agony there. The Jesus who sweats blood in the garden of Gethsemane is not the great King, full of pain because the sheep will not heed the shepherd; nor is it the great Magus, full of sorrow because nobody wants to pick up on the truth he’s revealed; nor is it the great warrior, frustrated in his efforts to defeat the powers of sin, death, and darkness. These pains and frustrations mostly take place elsewhere, among the crowds, in the temple, in the desert. The garden is for lovers, not for kings, magi, and warriors.
It’s Jesus, the lover, the one who calls us to intimacy and delight with him, who sweats blood in the garden. That’s why, in describing his suffering during his passion, the evangelists focus little on his physical sufferings (which must have been horrific). Indeed, Mark puts it all in a single line: “They led him away and crucified him.” What the gospel writers focus on is not the scourging, the whips, the ropes, the nails, the physical pain, none of that. They emphasize rather that, in all of this, Jesus is alone, misunderstood, lonely, isolated, without support, unanimity-minus-one. What’s emphasized is his suffering as a lover; the agony of a heart that’s ultra-sensitive, gentle, loving, understanding, warm, inviting, hungry to embrace everyone but which instead finds itself misunderstood, alone, isolated, hated, brutalized, facing murder.
That’s the point that has been too often missed in both spirituality and popular devotion. I remember as a young boy, being instructed by a wonderful nun who told us that Jesus sweated blood in the garden of Gethsemane because, in his divine nature, he was saddened because he already foresaw that many people would not accept the sacrifice of his death. That’s a wonderfully pious thought, but it misses the point of what happened in Gethsemane.
In Gethsemane, we see Jesus suffering as a lover. His agony is not that of the son of God, frustrated because many people will not accept his sacrifice, nor even is his agony the all-too-understandable fear of the physical pain that awaits him. No, his real pain is that of the lover who’s been misunderstood and rejected in a way that is mortal and humiliating. What Jesus is undergoing in Gethsemane might aptly be paralleled to what a good, faithful, loving, very sensitive, and deeply respectful man or woman would feel if he or she were falsely accused of paedophilia, publicly judged as guilty, and now made to stand powerless, isolated, misunderstood, and falsely judged before the world, family, friends, and loved ones. Such a person too would surely pray: “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me!”
The agony in the Garden is many things, but, first of all, it’s Jesus’ entry into the darkest black hole of human existence, the black hole of bitter misunderstanding, rejection, aloneness, loneliness, humiliation, and the helplessness to do anything about it. The agony in the Garden is the black hole of sensitivity brutalized by callousness, love brutalized by hatred, goodness brutalized by misunderstanding, innocence brutalized by wrong judgement, forgiveness brutalized by murder, and heaven brutalized by hell. This is deepest, black hole of loneliness and it brings the lover inside us to the ground in agony begging for release.
But, whenever our mouths pushed into the dust of misunderstanding and loneliness inside that black hole, it’s helpful to know that Jesus was there before us, tasting just our kind of loneliness.