In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus knew perfectly just what it was for which He was to pay the penalty of death. He was to pay the penalty for sin — for all the sins of mankind, from the first to the last. Isaiah the prophet had cried out:
“Woe is me, because I have held my peace; because I am a man of unclean lips, and . . . I have seen with my eyes the King, the Lord of Hosts” (6:5).
Infinitely more than Isaiah, Jesus knew the utter purity of the Divine Majesty, His own complete innocence, and the awful malice of sin. Jesus loved His Father with an infinite love, and He loved the sinner. Jesus grieved over the offense sin gave to His Father and the harm it wrought in human souls. He grieved particularly as head of the human family, because it was in a very real sense His own family that gave offense to the Divine Majesty.
Showdown in the Garden
In the other scenes of our Lord’s Sacred Passion, many are present. In the prayer in the garden, Jesus appears to be alone with His Father, except for the brief presence of the comforting angel. Although the Evangelists do not mention it, there is reason to believe that Satan also was present. At the beginning of our Lord’s public life, after the forty days’ fast, the devil tempted him, and the temptation was directed to Jesus in His role of Messiah. After this trial of strength, the devil left our Lord, but, as St. Luke says significantly, his departure was temporary: “He departed from him for a while” (4:13).
Now, at the time of the Passion, the devil returns with all his cunning and power. St. John records that Satan entered into Judas after Christ had given him a morsel at the Last Supper (13:27). A few minutes later, Jesus Himself declared: “The prince of the world is coming, and in me he has nothing” (John 14:30). On the same occasion, Jesus warned the Apostles that Satan would soon make an assault upon them, would sift them as the harvester sifts the grain in the sieve (Luke 22:31).
As Jesus kneels and prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, Satan knows that the showdown is at hand in the struggle between Jesus and His enemies, and now he marshals all his forces to make a grand final assault.
The Gospel account of Christ’s temptation at the beginning of His public life reveals that He could be and was tempted by external suggestion. As St. Paul says in his epistle to the Hebrews: “For in that he himself has suffered and has been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted” (2:18).
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Satan again tempts Christ as Messiah. Again he pictures for him the easy and glorious role of a Messiah according to the popular ideas of the time. How easy it could be! How often the crowds following Jesus had tried to take Him by force and make Him King! On the preceding Sunday, they had given Him a glorious reception into the city of Jerusalem, strewing their garments in His path and proclaiming Him the Son of David, the Messiah. The path He had followed on that triumphal day lay just outside the gate of the garden where Jesus now prayed, and the hosannas of the people seemed still to echo through the valley and from the walls of the Temple on the hill opposite. One word from Jesus, and He could march from triumph to triumph. He could substitute the crown for the cross; He could save Himself and His people.
And the alternative? Jesus knew it well. It was the lot of the suffering Servant of Yahweh pictured in the somber prophecies of Isaiah (53). It was the betrayal, the condemnation by His own people and by the Roman tribunal; it was the scourging, the crowning with thorns, the carrying of the cross, the three long hours of suffering on that shameful gibbet, ending in death.
Christ’s Answer to Temptation
Jesus’ answer to the diabolical temptation is contained in his oft-repeated act of resignation addressed to His Father: “Not my will, but thine be done.” The words were simple and few, but they were difficult words to say. They were costly words. They cost Jesus hours of agonizing prayer. They cost Him His life.
It is impossible to place exact limits to the scope of Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus must have undergone a severe trial, too, from His own foresight of the consequences of His Passion and the utter ingratitude of those who should have benefited by it. To the great Apostle Paul, it was incredible that anyone could be so evil as to cause Christ to die in vain. “O foolish Galatians,” he wrote, “who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ has been depicted crucified?” (Gal. 3:1).
And yet, when Jesus was still a child, the holy Simeon had told His Mother, Mary: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel, and for a sign that shall be contradicted” (Luke 2:34). That was part of the awful tragedy of Christ’s Passion. In spite of its cost in blood and tears, many would not profit by it. For many, Jesus would die in vain. Worse still, their damnation would be deeper, their culpability greater, for the very reason that He had come to offer them their hard-bought redemption. This thought was surely in Jesus’ mind. But a few hours earlier that evening, He had said: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would have no sin. But now they have no excuse for their sin” (John 15:22).
The bitterest part of this suffering was undoubtedly the fact that His own people would be the first to reject Him and His saving mission. We cannot doubt that Jesus loved His people with a great and special love. The Apostle Paul later wrote in His epistle to the Romans:
I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sadness and continuous sorrow in my heart. For I could wish to be anathema myself from Christ for the sake of my brethren, who are my kinsmen according to the flesh; who are Israelites, who have the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the legislation and the worship and the promises; who have the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all things, God blessed forever, amen. (9:1–5)
Paul would not only willingly die for his people, but if it were possible, he would even accept an immeasurably greater suffering — he would become anathema from Christ in order to reconcile them to Christ. Jesus’ love for His people was infinitely greater than Paul’s. But a few days before, He had looked down on Jerusalem from a point a little above the Garden of Gethsemane, and He had wept at the thought of the punishment that would overtake this city for its awful sin of deicide. “If thou hadst known,” he said, “in this thy day, even thou, the things that are for thy peace! But now they are hidden from thy eyes” (Luke 19:42). And again He had cried out: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! thou who killest the prophets, and stonest those who are sent to thee! How often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but thou wouldst not!” (Matt. 23:37).
These people He loved so much and longed so ardently to save would reject Him. Already He could hear the cry that would go up but a few hours hence from the crowd gathered against Him before the tribunal of the Roman procurator: “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” (John 19:15). And He could hear also that awful curse they would call down upon themselves instead of the blessings He would give them: “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matt. 27:25). His condemnation was difficult for Him to accept, but it was rendered more difficult by the thought that His condemnation was also the condemnation of those He loved so dearly.
And even among those nearest to Him, His twelve Apostles, there was one who would betray Him, one for whom He would die in vain, one for whom His death would be a cause of deeper damnation. Jesus loved Judas and strove to bring him to his senses before it was too late. His efforts were of no avail. Even now Judas was approaching to consummate the deed that would lead him to death and damnation.
The other Apostles would profit by Jesus’ death, but they too were a source of sorrow to Him. He had tried unsuccessfully to prepare them for the awful storm that even now was ready to break over their heads. Instead of praying, they slept. Soon they would desert Him, and Peter would even deny that he knew Him. He was fully aware that they would return to Him, but He foresaw too the terrible trials that awaited them because they were His disciples. How truly He had told them: “They will expel you from the synagogues. Yes, the hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering worship to God. . . . You shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice” (John 16:2, 20). And finally, they would be called upon to offer their lives as martyrs to their faith in Him.
Jesus foresaw too the fate that awaited His Church, the persecutions it would be subjected to down through the centuries. Its history would be in a sense a prolongation of that way of the cross that He would soon tread. He was the Head of the Church. He suffered in its members. That is why he could truly say to the persecutor, Saul: “Saul, Saul, why dost thou persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). Jesus foresaw, too, those vast multitudes to the end of time who would reject Him and His saving grace, those for whom He would die in vain.
A feeling of futility must have been one of the major causes of the interior sufferings of our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane. On the one hand was the terrible price He would pay for our redemption; on the other, indifference, ingratitude, neglect, and rejection. That Christ should accept the sufferings of His Passion to redeem even the saints was an act of divine prodigality; that He should accept the role for all of us was an act of generosity beyond all comprehension.