There’s a remarkable expression in popular language that describes one of the most painful moments within Jesus’ life, his “agony in the garden”. The phrases describes his inner struggle the night before he died. That struggle and venue, the garden, are the ultimate desert and our response to what we do battle with there becomes our defining moment. We see this clearly in Jesus’ life:
The evangelists tell us that, after the last supper, Jesus went out into the garden of Gethsemane where he prayed in great agony and, in the face of every kind of resistance within himself, ultimately accepted what his Father was asking of him, sacrifice and death. But it wasn’t easy. He is described as “sweating blood”. Why? What is he struggling with in Gethsemane?
Sometimes devotional literature idealizes this. It tells us that Jesus suffered so greatly in Gethsemane because, albeit he was God, he was tasting our sins and foreseeing that his death, so brutal and painful, would not be appropriated by all people. These are pious thoughts, not quite in line with scripture. What we are told in scripture is that his agony takes place in a garden, an archetypal place. As we know from anthropology and fairy tales, the garden, in its real sense, is not a place where one goes for onions and cucumbers. It is the place of love, the place where the prince and princess meet to kiss in the moonlight, the place of our dreams, the paradise that Adam and Eve lost for us. It is there, in the garden, the place of love, that Jesus sweats blood. Thus he sweats blood not as the great teacher or magus, nor as the great king or shepherd, nor even as the great conqueror of sin and death, the divine warrior. No. He sweats blood as the great lover. That is too why the gospel accounts of his sufferings that follow emphasize not his physical sufferings, which surely were horrific, but his abandonment by his friends. It is Jesus the lover who sweats blood in the garden and who is betrayed, abandoned, and crucified.
So what happens to him in the garden? Partly this is obvious, partly it is not. In the garden, Jesus has to make a decision to accept something. What? A sacrificial death? Surely. But something else as well. The garden is too the place where he has to make a choice as to what his love will ultimately be guided by. It’s this decision that costs him blood. What’s being said here?
My own dad, who taught me many of the things I trust most deeply about faith and life, used to say: “If you want to keep a commitment, any commitment, you can do it only if you are willing to sweat blood in a garden. To be true to what’s asked of you, sometimes you have to make a decision for value that goes against every emotion in your heart.” He understood what’s at stake in the garden. Tragically, for the most part, we no longer do. Allow me a paradigmatic illustration:
Several years ago, I sat with a friend who was trying to explain to me the reasons for his impending divorce. He was thirty-five years old, the father of three children, and had been married for nearly ten years. By all indications his marriage had not been a bad one, in fact, it had generally exhibited signs of considerable health. Moreover he was good-hearted and sincere, a person who would have been horrified to hear himself described as a womanizer, as unfaithful, as calloused, or as irresponsible. What had happened? Quite simply he fell in love with someone else and now this new relationship was negating his marriage. So he spoke in this way: “This new love is more important than everything else in my life, including my wife and kids. It would be inhuman not to actualize it. I didn’t ask for this. It just happened! I know there are some awful consequences but this is what I have to do. I have no real choice now – I’m in love!” Sound case? Good logic? Yes. Cupid can be cruel. He’s a victim of love after all, isn’t he? Or is he?
Somewhere between the spontaneous flirting and the stolen dinners and lies to his wife and the initiation of a physical and sexual relationship, this man would have needed to spend some time in garden, bleeding blood, subjecting what comes naturally to a higher truth, lying prostrate in helplessness and grief as Jesus did, in order to sweat out his marriage vows and be taught almost against his will what is the price of real commitment. Time in the love’s desert, the garden of Gethsemane, might have changed his decision. But he didn’t go there. So today he is married to someone else.
Agony and ecstasy. Gethsemane and paradise. Love and infidelity. Betrayal and heroism. These things happen in the garden. Every lover makes his or her defining decision there.