Saint Paul in the Garden of Gethsemane

In my last article, I looked at the Epistle of James’ revolutionary teaching on the value of suffering. In this article we want to build upon those insights, seeing how closely St. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” paralleled the Lord Jesus’s experience in Gethsemane (2 Cor 12:7-10). Take a moment to unpack this with me, because it ties directly into our own experiences of suffering.

In Gethsemane we see Jesus as we’ve never seen him before. He collapsed to the ground and cried through tears, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; remove this chalice from me; yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:35–36; Heb. 5:7). Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus repeated this prayer three separate times. “Sorrow” pushed him to the point of death (Mark 14:34). Jesus had stepped into the place of sinners, taking, as it were, the weight of our sins upon his shoulders. He witnessed every betrayal, slander, rape, and murder from history’s dawn until its end and offered the Father all the sorrow and contrition that mankind should feel, but does not. He offered the Father the love of which those sins robbed Him. An angel was sent, not to whisk Jesus away but strengthen him so that his body and soul could endure more than humanly possible. The Son learned what it was to put one foot in front of the other in painful obedience; and his Passion redeemed us. The Epistle to the Hebrews goes so far as to say that Jesus was “made perfect” by this obedient acceptance of suffering (Heb 5:8-9). It was the means by which his humanity was “perfected” (teleioō  in Greek, “completed,” or “brought to fullness”); the “indestructible life” of the Resurrection was reached by way of the Cross (Heb 7:16). 

Now look at Paul’s account of his “thorn in the flesh.” Although Paul does not spell out the difficulty, a number of commentators suggest a chronic physical ailment. Whatever its nature, it must have been a source of great pain for Paul to have characterized it as “a messenger of satan meant to buffet me and keep me from becoming puffed up” (2 Cor. 12:7). Paul petitioned the Lord to remove the thorn—not once, but three separate times. And like Jesus’ three petitions, Paul’s were not met with a cessation of pain but an infusion of strength—and not from an angel, but Jesus himself. The Lord spoke to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” This revelation led Paul to say, “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10). 

Saint Paul reveals another element of the mystery: Not only can suffering be redemptive for us personally, but the grace we receive at such moments spills over to other members of Christ’s mystical body. Many Christians are unacquainted with this belief, but it is grounded in Scripture and Tradition. From prison Paul wrote the Colossians, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col. 1:24). First, let us be clear that Paul was not placing a limit on the redemptive scope of Christ’s Passion. Paul held Jesus’s sacrifice to be absolutely sufficient. Christ, and he alone, has redeemed us from the guilt of our sins and united us to the Father. Second, we have also seen Paul’s conviction that we must suffer with Christ if we are to be raised with him (Rom 8:16–17) and that it is in times of suffering that Christ imparts additional grace to the soul and advances us toward final justification (2 Cor 12:9; Phil 3:10–12; Acts 14:22). 

These two truths harmonize to explain how Paul’s sufferings could benefit the Colossians: Christ’s obedience in suffering paid the eternal debt of sin and won redemption for the human race. United to him, the sufferings of his Church are a divinely ordained means for appropriating the grace of redemption. Grace descends not just upon the individual bearing his or her suffering, but upon other Christians. That is what Paul communicated, in a shorthand way, when he told the Colossians that he rejoiced in the sufferings he underwent for their sake. This is but another facet of Paul’s well-known teaching that Christ and the Church form one mystical person, wherein each member enriches the others (1 Cor 12:12–27; Eph 4:11–16). 

Jesus is the redeemer, and baptism unites us to him. He lives in us, and we live in him. This makes it possible for our sufferings to be drawn into his and offered to the Father. It is a mystery analogous to that of the Eucharist: Christ presents us to the Father, “This is my Body, this is my Blood.” If Christ’s obedience while suffering the Passion merited the redemption of our race, then his suffering in us—the trustful surrender to the Father that he produces in our souls—can merit the application of redemptive graces to our brothers and sisters. The Redeemer makes the sufferings of his members redemptive. This teaching in no way denies Christ’s position as the sole mediator between God and man. As members of his body, we Christians intercede from “within” him (1 Tim 2:1–5). The thought that we play a role in others’ salvation may seem scandalous to some, but it is thoroughly biblical. Did not God make the world’s salvation dependent upon the preaching of the apostles? They extended Christ’s teaching ministry beyond the borders of Israel: “we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:20; cf. Rom 10:14; 1 Tim 4:16; Jude 22–23). If the Church can participate in this aspect of Christ’s redeeming work, then why not his work of suffering?

Christ unites our earthly sufferings to his and transmutes them into spiritual sacrifices. The Father accepts such sacrifices and reciprocates with unmatched generosity: “[give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be put into your lap” (Lk 6:38). All of this explains why Paul could rejoice in his experience of Gethsemane: it was a priestly offering, supernaturally valuable, and beneficial for his brothers and sisters.

This article was adapted from Shane Kapler’s James: Jewish Roots: Catholic Fruits (Angelico Press, 2021).

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