Every night during family rosary, my husband intones each decade: “The third joyful mystery is….” And every single decade, our oldest blurts out: “THE AGONY IN THE GARDEN!” It is a clever strategy with a one in twenty chance of being right on any given try. I’m not sure why he has latched on to this particular mystery as the most memorable, but this year, I also find myself spending much time in contemplating this event in the life of Christ.
Perhaps is simply a product of getting older, losing some of the self-centered attitude of youth and seeing more of life, or maybe social media is saturating me with news of friends I wouldn’t otherwise keep in touch with. Maybe we really are enduring a year of trial. Whatever the reason, it seems that my generation of Catholics is experiencing a time of great sorrow. Everywhere I turn I hear of another need for prayer: young families losing parents, deaths of children, good people facing grave mental and physical illness. Each time we join together and storm heaven with prayer. Almost always, the tragedy we had sought to avoid happens all the same.
The example of those bearing up under suffering, reaffirming their faith in and love of God in times of sorrow, has been beautiful and an inspiration. Still, being a vain person myself, I became vain on God’s behalf. Are we doing bad PR for him when we publicly pray for a miracle and it isn’t granted? Is it a scandal to those of little or no faith to see so many pray with great faith only to face tragedy? Then I remembered the agony in the garden, the world’s most famous “unanswered” prayer.
Because of his perfect response to every challenge, it is easy to slip into an unconscious monophysitism, ignoring the true humanity of Christ. We forget that Jesus is not merely acting human to give us an example. He shared our humanity and with it our human struggles and emotions. When He wept they were real tears. When He was angry it was true emotion. When He begged his Father “take this cup from me”, it was His real desire. The Gospels speak of anguish, sorrow unto death, and drops of blood. This was not a mere show for our edification but true agony and a longing to escape the suffering that awaited him.
And the Father’s answer was No.
Of course, Jesus’ prayer, like all prayers, was really anything but unanswered. That No resulted in Jesus’ passion and death, his resurrection and glorious ascension into heaven. That No was our salvation. This is what we too must believe about our own prayers. That the No we receive brings about good surpassing anything we could imagine. No means a heavenly crown, or a conversion of heart, or an inspiration to others. Confident in this belief we can pray the second part of Jesus’ words: Thy will be done.
The agony in the garden offers an example of prayer to people in every circumstance. For the fortunate the lesson is twofold. We have an obligation to pray for and with the suffering. Pray also that you may not be tested. “For the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Those facing a frightening future are taught to pray fervently for reprieve. Pray for miraculous intervention. There is no shame or weakness in that. Our Lord himself has shown us how. And those whose prayers go “unanswered” can pray to accept the will of God and to feel his comfort as he sent the angel to comfort Jesus. Do all of this with sincerity, with abandon, without shame. Sometimes God does grant a miracle, but when He does not it will not be the first or last time that the scandal of an unanswered prayer has redounded to His glory and the greater good of men.