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Gethsemane: the Agony in the Garden and the Prayer of Jesus

J. Gil

Tags: Faith, Prayer, Following Christ, The Will of God, Holy Week , Year of Faith, In the footprints of our Faith
Footprints of our Faith
View of the Kedron valley and the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem. Photo: www.biblewalks.com.
View of the Kedron valley and the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem. Photo: www.biblewalks.com.
“When God’s appointed time comes to save mankind from the slavery of sin, we contemplate Jesus Christ in Gethsemani, suffering in agony to the point of sweating blood (cf. Lk 22:44). He spontaneously and unconditionally accepts the sacrifice which the Father is asking of him.” (Friends of God, no. 25)

The Gospel accounts have told us where Jesus went after the Last Supper: “He went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives (Lk 22:39), on the other side of the Kedron brook (Jn 18:1), and with his Apostles, came to the place called Gethsemane (Mt 26:36; Mk 14:32). It was a garden or orchard where there was an oil-press (this is the meaning of the name Gethsemane), and it was outside the city walls of Jerusalem, to the east of the city, on the way to Bethany.

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In the Garden of Olives, facing his imminent Passion, soon to be unleashed by Judas’ betrayal, Jesus our Lord warned us of the need to pray
This particular place must have been well known, because Jesus often met his disciples there (Jn 18:2). It is not surprising that the first Christians preserved the memory of where these transcendent events in the history of our salvation had taken place. In the Garden of Olives, seeing the imminence of his Passion, soon to be set in motion by Judas’ betrayal, Jesus our Lord warned us of the need to pray: “He said to his disciples, ‘Sit here, while I pray.’ 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.’ And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.’(Mk 14:32-36).

His crushing sorrow was so great that “there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling upon the ground” (Lk 22:43-44). Christ’s prayer is in contrast with the Apostles’ behaviour. “And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow. And he said to them, ‘Why do you sleep? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Lk 22:45-46).

Jesus went back to his companions three times, and each time he found them heavy with sleep. The last time, it was too late: “‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come; the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.’ And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs” (Mk 14:41-43). With a kiss he betrayed our Lord, who was arrested, while the disciples abandoned him and fled.

We know from the pilgrim Egeria that in the second half of the fourth century a liturgical ceremony was celebrated on Holy Thursday “in the place where the Lord prayed”, and that there was “a beautiful church” there (Itinerarium Egeriae, 36, 1; CCL 175, 79). The faithful came into the church, prayed, sang hymns and listened to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ agony in the garden. Then they went in procession to another part of Gethsemane where our Lord’s Arrest was recalled (cf. Itinerarium Egeriae, 36, 2-3).
The Basilica of the Agony, left apse, showing the scene of our Lord’s betrayal by Judas. Photo: Leobard Hinfelaar.
The Basilica of the Agony, left apse, showing the scene of our Lord’s betrayal by Judas. Photo: Leobard Hinfelaar.

Following this tradition, and other equally ancient ones, today three places are venerated as being connected with the events of that night: the rock where our Lord prayed; a garden that has eight olive-trees that could be at least a thousand years old, as well as younger ones; and a grotto reputed to be the place of the Arrest. The three locations are barely a dozen yards apart, at the lowest part of the Mount of Olives, almost at the bottom of the Kedron valley, surrounded by picturesque scenery: this brook, like most of the wadis of Palestine, is a dry valley for most of the year, filled only by the winter rains. The lower slopes of the mountain, unlike the top, are sparsely inhabited, because much of the land has been used for cemeteries. There are plentiful olive-trees, usually on terraced land, and also cypresses along the roadways.

The Basilica of the Agony
The rock on which tradition relates that our Lord fell to pray is located within the Basilica of the Agony, or the Church of All Nations. It was given this second name because sixteen countries collaborated in building it between 1922 and 1924. It follows the plan of a Byzantine-era church of which little more than the foundations survived, because it was destroyed by fire, possibly before the seventh century. It was about 25 by 16 yards in size, had a nave and two side-aisles, with three apses, and mosaic designs on the floors. Some fragments of the mosaics survive, now protected by glass. When the modern church was built, traces were found of a mediaeval church too. It was built in the times of the Crusades on the same spot as the original basilica, but was larger and faced the southwest, suggesting that the builders did not know about the older church. This one was abandoned after the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin.

From the Kedron valley one sees the wide atrium of the front of the Basilica, with its three arches supported by clusters of pillars and pilasters. Above the arches is a mosaic representing Christ as Mediator between God and man. On sunny days the brilliant exterior forms a strong contrast with the dim light inside: the light enters through windows of violet-coloured glass, and its quiet tones recall Jesus’ hours of agony, and dispose pilgrims for silence, recollection and contemplation. The ceiling’s twelve domes, supported in the centre of the church by six slim pillars, reinforce this sensation by their mosaics representing a dark, starry sky.

The Basilica of the Agony, also called the Church of All Nations, because eighteen countries contributed to its construction. Photo: Israel Tourism (Flickr).
The Basilica of the Agony, also called the Church of All Nations, because eighteen countries contributed to its construction. Photo: Israel Tourism (Flickr).
In the sanctuary, in front of the altar, the piece of rock, venerated as the place of our Lord’s agony, rises above the level of the rest of the floor. It is surrounded by a railing designed to represent the crown of thorns. Behind it, in the central apse, is a mosaic showing Jesus’ agony in the garden; the mosaics in the side apses represent the betrayal by Judas and the Arrest.

The Garden of Olives
The ground on which the Basilica is built has belonged to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land from the second half of the seventeenth century. When it was acquired, the most striking thing, apart from the mediaeval and Byzantine ruins, was what was known as the flower garden: an uncultivated area surrounded by a wall, where eight olive-trees were growing which local tradition claimed to date back to the time of Christ. While the Franciscans awaited the time to be right to rebuild the church, they protected these ancient olive-trees, which were undoubtedly linked to local Christian tradition, so that they have survived to the present day.
The rock where, according to tradition, our Lord lay prostrate in prayer, now in the centre of the Basilica of the Agony. Photo: Marie-Armelle Beaulieu/CTS.
The rock where, according to tradition, our Lord lay prostrate in prayer, now in the centre of the Basilica of the Agony. Photo: Marie-Armelle Beaulieu/CTS.

They are impressively old in appearance. Botanists who have studied them disagree on their age; some maintain they were planted in the eleventh century, all being grafts from the same branch; and others consider that their immense girth allows an estimate that they date back to the first millennium. However old they turn out to be, they are worth preserving as silent witnesses perpetuating the memory of Jesus and the last night of his life on earth.

The Grotto of the Arrest
The site of the Basilica of the Agony and the Garden of Gethsemane also includes a Franciscan monastery. Outside the enclosure, several yards to the north, is the Grotto of the Arrest, which also belongs to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. It is reached via a narrow passage starting from the entrance courtyard of the Assumption of the Virgin. (This shrine of Mary will be the subject of a separate article, together with the Basilica of the Dormition on Mount Sion. For the time being it is enough to note that according to some traditions, our Lady’s body was taken there from the area of the Cenacle before her Assumption. The church is shared by the Greek, Armenian, Syrian and Coptic communities.)

The Grotto of the Arrest is about 19 yards long by 10 yards wide. Some archaeological traces suggest that it was used as a temporary living-space or a storage space by the owner of the garden. It is believed that eight of the Apostles rested here on the night of Jesus’ arrest. After the hours of his agony and prayer in the garden, when our Lord saw Judas approaching, he is said to have come here with the other three Apostles to warn them what was about to happen, Therefore it would be from this part of Gethsemane that he went out to meet the soldiers.
Ancient olive-trees in Gethsemane, some of which could date back to the first millennium. Photo: Leobard Hinfelaar.
Ancient olive-trees in Gethsemane, some of which could date back to the first millennium. Photo: Leobard Hinfelaar.

Many graffiti, scratched or carved by pilgrims in different languages on the plaster of the walls and ceiling, witness to almost uninterrupted veneration in this place. In the fourth century, the cave or grotto was already being used as a chapel, and its floor had been decorated with mosaics. From the fifth to the seventh centuries, it was the site of Christian burials. In the times of the Crusades, it was adorned with frescoes. Starting in the fourteenth century the Franciscans obtained the rights to hold certain acts of worship there, and finally they obtained ownership of it. A restoration project carried out in 1956 brought to light the original structure, with a wine-press and a cistern; above the grotto, in the same enclosure, the remains of an ancient olive-press were also found.

Let not my will be done…
“There are so many Gospel scenes where Jesus talks to his Father that we cannot stop to consider them all. But I do feel we must pause to consider the intense hours preceding his Passion and Death, when Christ prepares himself to carry out the Sacrifice that will bring us back once more to God’s Love. In the intimacy of the Upper Room the Heart of Jesus overflows with love; he turns to the Father in prayer, announces the coming of the Holy Spirit, and encourages his disciples to maintain the fervour of their charity and their faith.

The Church of the Assumption, with the passageway to the right leading to the Grotto of the Arrest. Photo: Leobard Hinfelaar.
The Church of the Assumption, with the passageway to the right leading to the Grotto of the Arrest. Photo: Leobard Hinfelaar.
Our Redeemer’s mood of fervent recollection continues in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he perceives that his Passion is about to begin, with all its humiliation and suffering close at hand, the harsh Cross on which criminals are hanged and which he has longed for so ardently. ‘Father, if it pleases thee, take away this chalice from before me.’ And immediately he adds, ‘Yet not my will but thine be done’ (Lk 22:42).” (Friends of God, no. 240)

“If we are aware that we are God’s children, that our Christian vocation involves following the Master’s steps, our contemplation of his prayer and agony in the Garden of Olives should lead us to dialogue with God the Father. ‘When Jesus prays he is already teaching us how to pray’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2607). And as well as being our model, he summons us to pray, just like Peter, James and John, when he took them with him and begged them to keep watch with him: ‘ “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” And Peter fell asleep. And the other apostles. And you, little friend, fell asleep..., and I too was another sleepy-headed Peter’ (Holy Rosary, first sorrowful mystery).
The Grotto of the Apostles or of the Arrest, with traces of Christian worship that has continued uninterruptedly down the centuries. Photo: Enrique Bermejo/CTS
The Grotto of the Apostles or of the Arrest, with traces of Christian worship that has continued uninterruptedly down the centuries. Photo: Enrique Bermejo/CTS

There are no excuses for letting ourselves fall asleep. We can all pray. To be more precise, we must all pray, because we have come into this world to love God, praise him, and serve him, and then, in the next world (because our life here is a temporary stay) to be happy with him for ever. And what is praying? It is simply talking with God, by means of vocal prayers or in meditation. Talking with God to learn from him, consists of looking at him, telling him about our lives – our work, joys, sufferings, tiredness, reactions, temptations. If we listen to him, we will hear him suggesting, ‘Leave that; be more friendly; work better; serve others; don’t think badly of anyone; speak sincerely and politely…’” (Javier Echevarria, Getsemaní: en oración con Jesucristo, p. 12)
Jesus, alone and sad, suffers and soaks the earth with His blood. Kneeling on the hard ground, he perseveres in prayer... He weeps for you... and for me: the weight of the sins of men overwhelms Him

Benedict XVI, in an audience in which he spoke about Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, said that we Christians, if we seek to get steadily closer to God, have the capacity to bring heaven to this earth. “ ‘Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Mt 6:10). In other words we recognize that there is a will of God with us and for us, a will of God for our life that must become every day, increasingly, the reference of our willing and of our being; we recognize moreover that ‘heaven’ is where God’s will is done and where the ‘earth’ becomes ‘heaven’, a place where love, goodness, truth and divine beauty are present, only if, on earth, God’s will is done.
In Jesus’ prayer to the Father on that terrible and marvellous night in Gethsemane, the ‘earth’ became ‘heaven’; the ‘earth’ of his human will, shaken by fear and anguish, was taken up by his divine will in such a way that God’s will was done on earth. And this is also important in our own prayers: we must learn to entrust ourselves more to divine Providence, to ask God for the strength to come out of ourselves to renew our ‘yes’ to him, to say to him ‘thy will be done’, so as to conform our will to his” (Benedict XVI, Audience, 1 February 2012)

“Jesus, alone and sad, suffers and soaks the earth with His blood.
Kneeling on the hard ground, He perseveres in prayer... He weeps for you... and for me: the weight of the sins of men overwhelms Him.” (Holy Rosary, first sorrowful mystery)
The Basilica of the Agony, central apse, with the scene of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden. Photo: Leobard Hinfelaar.
The Basilica of the Agony, central apse, with the scene of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden. Photo: Leobard Hinfelaar.

“Turn to our Lady and ask her – as a token of her love for you – for the gift of contrition. Ask that you may be sorry, with the sorrow of Love, for all your sins and for the sins of all men and women throughout the ages.
And with that same disposition, be bold enough to add: ‘Mother, my life, my hope, lead me by the hand… And if there is anything in me which is displeasing to my Father God, grant that I may see it, so that, between the two of us, we may uproot it.’
Do not be afraid to continue: ‘O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary, pray for me, that by fulfilling the most lovable Will of your Son, I may be worthy to obtain and enjoy what our Lord Jesus has promised’.” (The Forge, no. 161)